There are many opinions on equine dentistry.
And no simple opinions.
Equestrians will hear, “Well maybe but not until she’s at least 5 years old, 10, 17 ... ” or whatever.
You'll also be told, “Only if the wolf teeth are a problem.”
Opinion abounds in the horse world.
Your horses’ care is always up to you, but I will provide information that may help you make the right decision. I am in no way an expert but I have done some research and I have had horses for more than 35 years. I also know loads of others who own equines.
I have seen horses that go their entire lives without needing dental care, like my 21-year-old gelding. I've also seen some that need just a little now and then. And I've known horses that require dental care in order to survive and thrive.
In order to break this down a little bit, I'll present the information on dentistry in two sections. This week I’ll talk about dental care and issues related to the younger equines. Next week, we’ll look at older horses and others, like wild horses.
Horse’s have baby teeth much like people and other mammals. These teeth fall out at intervals until the horse is between 4 1/2 and 5 years old. The permanent teeth then grow continually until the horse is 25 – 30 years old. The chewing action, grit in their food (dirt, sand, silica) and the grasses and other food all help to wear the horse’s teeth and keep them from growing out of their heads, at least somewhat.
Christine Griffin, an equine dentist advises, “Some young horses will have wolf teeth erupt that should be removed before a bit is placed in their mouth. Wolf teeth are very small and many times will erupt right in front of the molars that the bit sits against and it is easy for them to break when the pressure of the bit is applied against the molars during training. So before a bit is ever placed in a horse’s mouth, the horse should be checked to see if any wolf teeth need to be removed.”
So that’s the story behind the “wolf teeth." I always wondered about that. I’ve never had a horse with wolf teeth so I didn't really know what or where they were or why they are a problem.
By age 5, your horse will have lost 24 baby teeth (caps) and will have up to 44 permanent teeth. Most people don’t realize that horses this age, usually starting their saddle training, are cutting teeth (teething) at the same time the training begins which sometimes is the cause of behavior issues during their training. While most horses lose their caps with no problems, about 15 percent get stuck and can create problems for the incoming teeth. They may erupt in the wrong location causing permanent problems and of course don’t forget about those wolf teeth. I have kept some of the baby teeth I’ve found in my horses corrals when mucking them out as little mementos of their youth.
Christine also told me, “Horses' teeth are unlike ours in that they are called hypsodont teeth. Their teeth are surrounded by cementum with folds of enamel weaving more centrally through the teeth. As they chew their food, they actually wear the tooth surface down. If they don’t wear evenly, the teeth become different heights. Their teeth also don’t feel heat, cold or pain like our teeth do.”
If the teeth wear unevenly, hooks or barbs develop on them, usually way in the back on the molars you can’t see. Those hooks can cause pain in your horse's mouth by poking or cutting the inside of her cheeks and can make it more and more difficult for her to chew her food properly. In that case, digestive problems can arise. In addition, problems and discomfort can create behavioral issues such as head tossing and refusal to take a bit. If left untreated, problems and discomfort only get worse.
Christine told me, “As the teeth are worn, the enamel, which is the hardest compound, is not worn down and creates the enamel points that need to be floated (filed) so the tongue and cheeks are not ulcerated by the knife-like edges. Similar to our teeth, the upper teeth are wider than the lower ones, so those jagged enamel points rub against their cheeks and in the back of their mouth where the cheeks are really tight against the teeth. They can get large ulcerations that are really painful and many times you can see the swelling from the outside of their face.”
Floating teeth, or filing them, requires no painkillers but it does require the horse to be sedated so she is relaxed. Depending on which teeth need to be floated, you may be asked to hold your horse’s mouth open – for those easy to reach teeth. Otherwise, a contraption will be placed in your horse’s mouth to hold it open while the filing is done. It looks rather medieval, that metal device called a speculum, all up in your horses face, but it is painless, really. Of course you may not appreciate the grinding sound of the file on your horse’s teeth if you are the more sensitive type, like me. I can't stand it.
So what are some of the signs that a horse may have dental issues? The list is long. For young horses, it could be chewing on things, biting or nipping people, not wanting their head touched and baby caps seen in manure or on the ground. They may have problems chewing food, tilting or turning their head, making “weird” faces trying to get relief. If you see any of these indications, they should have their teeth checked.
Horses of any age benefit from proper dental care. Being aware of what is going on in your horse's mouth will certainly make her happier. So the best advice, according to Christine, is to get your foals checked as early as possible for malformities. Start regular dentistry at age 2, including removal of baby caps and wolf teeth. Then each year get complete dentistry so balance and chewing pressure is distributed evenly.
Next week, I’ll talk more about horses that are all grown up, and I'll touch on wild horses too.